Discussion about the risks of worrying reveals positive benefits

On Tuesday, Feb. 20, two UCR professors held an open conversation at the UCR Extension Center about the risks of worrying and its mental consequences. Kate Sweeny, associate professor from the Department of Psychology, and Emily Rapp Black, assistant professor from the Department of Creative Writing, led the discussion, hosted by the UCR Center for Ideas and Society, under an ongoing monthly series titled “Disciplines in Dialogue.”

Sweeny spoke about her research on worrying as elaborated on in her paper titled, “The Surprising Upsides of Worry,” published in the journal Social and Personality Psychology Compass. She argued that although most people believe worrying can be a detriment to health and, in excessive amounts, could lead to serious mental health issues, it is not inherently harmful and can serve a fulfilling purpose. She prefaced her argument by defining “worry as a combination, especially an unpleasant one, of anxiety, on the emotional side, and repetitive thoughts, on the cognitive side.”

In her research, Sweeny focused on interviewing people with various backgrounds and occupations about the stressful events in their lives, from law students studying for the bar exam, to terminally ill patients awaiting news about their biopsies. Sweeny laments that many people, including herself, can understand how worrying can continue with “looping thoughts of uncertainty.” However, she shared with the audience that the satisfaction that comes after seeking solutions to their worries makes repetitive worrying conducive to a more productive lifestyle. The unpleasant feeling attached to worrying serves as a cue for people to find a solution, and motivates them to be more proactive in their lives. This can range from something as simple as wearing a seatbelt to prevent injury, to having an annual mammogram to detect early symptoms of cancer.

Black also spoke about how worrying previously affected her personal life and informed her writing. Black shared with the audience how experiencing the emotional toll of tending to her son, who was terminally affected with and eventually passed away from Tay-Sachs disease, changed her perspective on worrying and made her more attuned to the people and events in her life. She also began to recognize things that previously seemed important in her life as trivial, such as concerns about the public response she would receive about what became her best-seller novel published in March of 2013, titled “The Still Point of the Turning World.”

The Disciplines in Dialogue series will host their next talk at both the UCR Extension Center on March 20 at 3:30 p.m. as well as the UCR Palm Desert location on March 21 at 6:00 p.m. This discussion, led by UCR professors Bella Merlin (Theatre, Film and Digital Production) and Rachel Wu (Psychology), will be centered around the topic of taking new chances and learning new things at any age.

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